French farmer's son enjoys contract sawing in mid recession
A 29-years-old farmer’s son from the Pas de Calais with a new contract sawing service seems to be riding the downturn in timber processing.
Although the amount of timber Baptiste Jansens is processing in his first year is not high, his business is markedly stable.
Furthermore, it is boosted by regular contracts to saw the timber at a private sawmill in Marconelle whose equipment was fire damaged.
Based at the family farm his expenses are admittedly minimal, enabling him to establish himself and earn a good living.
Born in Abbeville, Baptiste was went to Calvados Agricultural College and Lille College, where he read vegetable biology. Subsequently, he worked two years on the 150 hectares family farm at Saint-Georges, near Hesdin in the south of the Pas de Calais. He was responsible for 1.5 hectares of strawberry production which accounts for five per cent of the farm which his father, Thierry bought from the grandmother 30 years ago. It has been in the family for a century.
However, Baptiste wanted to broaden his horizons and moved to Canada to help with maize harvesting on a big, american-owned farm south of Quebec. Harvest over, he moved north of Quebec to another American-owned set-up felling and sawing pines for export down to the United States.
Come winter, when tree felling in Canada is impossible, he worked for a firm transporting tourists on sledges pulled by Huskies and Malamuds, giving him a lasting admiration for such dogs.
Finally, he assisted a Wood-Mizer sawmill operator for eight months – which prompted admiration for the way such mills’ thin kerf technology dealt with logs.
He had harboured a fascination with wood most of his life but the opportunities which the Canadian mill evinced made him determined to set up some kind of timber orientated business for himself.
Returning to France, he recommenced working on the family farm but also set up an operation sawing with a Wood-Mizer LT70 diesel-powered, semi-industrial band sawmill. He bought this semi-industrial mill for ?50 000 and also a pick-up truck for ?25 000, borrowing the entire ?75 000 from the bank. He predicts he will amortise the loan seven years from setting up. However, an eventual improvement in the current recession could shorten that.
Since start-up he has concentrated on making planks 90cm x 6 metres long (the maximum capacity of the machine), boards, roof struts and other building components.
His operation has proved modestly successful, especially when measured within the financial crisis. Customers can fell and transport their own trees off their property into their own yards where he saws them to order.
5 000 small, local sawmills have closed since 1980 because of a mixture of outdated techniques and inflexibility so he enjoys a certain demand. Order books are full, not least because of his ability to make very thin boards not possible in relatively small quantities from most of the sawmills which survive. His territory covers all of the Nord-Pas de Calais and the north of France. Generally, his customers are farmers, private forestry owners, professional wood turners and timber frame builders.
One key clients is the local, SARL Meurot sawmill in Marconnelle for whom he saws, not only when they are overloaded.
The Meurot premises suffered a serious fire in 2001 and neither its Gilet circular saw nor a large bandsaw function. Chairman and managing director Jean Meurot explains:
"Our insurance pay-out was insufficient to replace the mills nor could we rent them."
The Meurot brothers fell trees and transport logs to their premises where Baptiste saws them to various specifications. The firm then kiln dries the beams and boards.
Before they met Baptiste the brothers client sent logs to another sawmill 35Km away, diminishing margins. Now Baptiste is their sawyer, towing his 3 tonnes sawmill to their premises behind his Mazda pickup truck when they want their timber sawn. Jean Meurot adds:
"By coming to our premises he saves us the hassle and cost of carting logs to another sawmill.
" He responds with a young man's enthusiasm to our various instructions, whatever they are and is flexible when faced with unusually large quantities, breakdowns or other emergencies.
"Furthermore, Baptiste doesn't demand a binding, annual contract!", concludes Jean Meurot.
The Meurot's commercial sawmill, one of Baptiste's biggest individual clients, takes about 20% of his activities and involves conversion of mostly oak plus a small amount of poplar
Sometimes he himself buys wood from the sawmill who deliver it to the family farm, helping Baptiste deal with occasionally high demand. Generally, however, he is at the sawmill’s disposal. It has become quite evident that they now get 80% wood in the form of beams and boards from a log and just 20% in the form of sawdust.
Furthermore, like many people in timber processing these days they assume a nod to sustainable tree harvesting by exploiting fewer trees for the same product.
Of the rest of his contract sawing, 30% is taken up by private individuals and farmers; and
50% for wood processors and joiners making tables, chairs, doors etc
Sawing for the individuals and farmers is virtually unaffected whereas work from the private sawmill is slightly reduced so in effect the current recession has cut his income by 20% –– something about which he doesn't lose sleep.
Specialised carpenters and joiners want wood delivered in specific widths which is simple to achieve with the Wood-Mizer.
Indeed, it is sufficiently flexible to enable him to saw down to just 1 mm.
"It’s a precise sawmill", he explains.
In his first year he is processing 700m3 of timber, slightly less than he expected as the crisis of confidence gradually emerged at the end of 2008. This year he would like to process 900m3 but admits the recession will make it stick at 700m3 as fewer builders’ customers manage to get credit.
He takes his mill to the south-west occasionally to saw some of the maritime pine and poplar which hurricane Klaus damaged. Additionally, he continues to live on his father’s farm and help with the maize, strawberries and 15 hectares of rhubarb. His father has farmed it for 30 years. He and the family feel he offsets any rent by the farm work.
He can’t predict when the upturn will come and just happily keeps working.
He can pay the bills but with income low it is difficult to take a holiday, he admits. He would like to build his own house on the place but obviously cannot afford that for the moment.
Baptiste works alone with his mill but when he visits customers they provide a couple of people to load logs and unload boards. Customers appear happy with this arrangement.
He changes the Wood-Mizer-made band blades every two hours, sharpening and resetting them himself with one of the company’s blade maintenance kits.
He uses 4/32 blades on hardwood and 10/30 on pine which occasionally he buys to order. He buys oak from the north of France. With purchase of the band sawmill came one day’s training and having familiarised himself with it in Canada, he took to it quickly.
Baptiste is happy with his first year because not having experienced running a business in the boom years he has instinctively geared his operation to present conditions. He even thinks he could have started it at the very depth of the recession, having successfully geared himself to it and liking it.
He is optimistic he will prosper in the crisis not least because through him customers appear to note that they save money by using their own wood and getting more out of it.
With not much time for holidays he does very occasionally enjoy shooting game on the place with his father and brother and a beloved malamud brought back from Canada –– and his mother welcomes what they bring home for the pot.
Certainly, the family enjoy la chasse as much as Baptiste Jansens revels in sawing in a crisis.
The mobile sawyer in north France (near Abbeville)
M. JANSENS Baptiste
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